Friday, August 9, 2013

Party with Pirates (and ironically steal their booze)

Piracy has been a hot topic issue in gaming since the dawn of rock paper scissors. Spanning such nebulous issues as consumer rights, copyright, fair use, and ethics, it is not difficult to understand why the issue of piracy is continuously raised. Recently, the conversation has steered towards the notion that piracy may be undercutting profits sufficiently that harsh measures ought to be implemented. I feel these methods are ineffective while also harming the consumer. On the flip side, no anti-piracy measures or Digital Rights Management (DRM) at all could lead to an industry-wide downturn which is also bad for the consumer.

First Things First – Piracy is Evil!
Before delving in, I think it should be said that I feel that piracy is pretty much ethically wrong in almost every conceivable scenario. It is stealing through and through and I think that those who posit piracy as a victimless crime are deluding themselves. While I do not intend to elaborate the argument fully here, I do find the case where a product is simply unavailable with no way at all to compensate the creator/owner to be a somewhat compelling argument to narrowly justify piracy in an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. If you are the last person on Earth, I suppose that stealing a game to keep yourself sane is akin to taking food to keeping yourself alive. The common justifications of “I want to try it before I buy it”, “I can’t afford it”, and certainly “they make enough money anyways” are, plainly put, dumb and unworthy of serious consideration. Still, other arguments may have the veneer of cogency and ought to be addressed and dismantled to prevent them from being wrongly applied as justification for unjustifiable behaviour. To make it perfectly clear: piracy is bad, piracy should be stopped, and piracy is unjustifiable.

How to lose friends and money – Always Online DRM
The above said, I do think that publishers and developers have been a bit overzealous in the way they combat piracy. Often, it seems the mentality is that to stop or catch the bad eggs it is necessary to punish everyone. Recently, the advent of ‘always online’ games seems to be squarely targeted at curbing piracy at the cost of law-abiding consumers. Pirates are going to have a hard time stealing a game if it needs to connect to a server controlled by the publisher where, presumably, any connecting client can be vetted to determine if it is authentic. This implies, however, that those who have legitimately purchased the software also have to connect. The problem here is that, if the server goes down or the consumer has lost their internet connection, they have effectively lost the ability to use the product they paid for. This might all be legal through the use of densely worded license agreements but it seems intuitively wrong that the product I have purchased could suddenly stop functioning at the whim of the publisher.

Another, perhaps less obtrusive, instance of a punish-all approach is by forcing consumers to register their game in order to access specific features.  While often the locked away features are community feeds that have little direct impact on the main game, this does not change the fact that some parts of the paid product are locked away until I have proved my copy is legitimate. Of concern here is that registering typically requires giving personal information and agreeing to terms of service that often authorizes the publisher to use this data as they see fit. Most publishers really only use this info to shill their own products but who’s to say that if they go defunct that your information will not be auctioned off to a less scrupulous company.

Draconian measures, such as those employed above, might be palatable if they effectively slammed the door on piracy. Unfortunately, in most cases, anti-piracy measures are eventually circumvented and the consumer is left feeling the pain. Recently, Sim City implemented an ‘always online’ requirement that led to massive service disruptions at launch and left many legitimate purchasers unable to play the game. Aggravatingly, EA-Maxis suggested that it was nigh impossible for an offline mode to be implemented while simultaneously footage of some pirated versions running offline emerged. Rightfully, Sim City ended up as PR disaster and sales were almost certainly negatively impacted because of it.

No-DRM is best... Not quite.
The Sim City case naturally leads to questions if anti-piracy measures are worth it for the publisher. Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer. On one end, I think that no matter what a publisher does, someone is probably going to find a way to play their game without paying. Further, I think that publishers need to realize that each pirated copy does not equate to a lost sale. Some pirates are just never going to buy your game no matter what, these people should be tracked down and prosecuted and the dream of converting them to a sale should be abandoned. Further, I think that by making a game more difficult to access illegitimately, some sales are protected. Finally, consumers need to recognize that higher sales are better for the games industry all around. A higher profit incentive inspires bigger budgets for games and entices fringe and independent developers to enter the industry while also facilitating lower consumer prices. All this together means, for me, that some anti-piracy measures should be implemented to the benefit of the publisher and the consumer.

At this point, I would like to discuss the case of CD Projekt RED who has famously embraced the removal of any DRM/anti-piracy measures from their games. While I think their intentions are laudable, I think they will ultimately end up hurting the industry in the long-term. CD Projekt RED’s major releases (The Witcher and its sequel) have met with both critical and commercial success. As such, they are the poster child for how anti-piracy measures are unnecessary to ensure significant profit. Further, some of their success has been attributed to their piracy stance drumming up goodwill within the community. While this is undoubtedly true, I suspect this goodwill spreading industry-wide is a mirage. If every publisher removed their anti-piracy measures tomorrow I don’t think we would suddenly see an uptick in sales across the board. CD Projekt RED has tapped into an ‘anti-DRM’ sentiment amongst the community that can only spread so far; consumers have opted to purchase their products because of their piracy stance instead of others (it is not as though consumers suddenly have more money because of CD Projekt RED’s piracy stance). What this means is that if every company implemented a similar attitude towards piracy, CD Projekt RED would probably lose those goodwill sales to other companies. If this were the case, then all companies would be on equal footing and sales attrition due to piracy would still exist. The concern is that if other companies feel they need to dump anti-piracy measures in order to compete, the perceived increase in profits would be coming at the expense of another company as opposed to the pirate. I do not think it is inconceivable that if every company removed anti-piracy measures from their game, larger publishers would take a fairly significant hit based on the dumb “they make enough money anyways” logic and overall industry-wide sales would drop (as mentioned above, this is also ultimately bad for the consumer).

The Luke Warm Pee Spot in the Pool
So, if both overly-aggressive and non-existent anti-piracy measures are bad, then that leaves the Goldilocks “just right” middle zone. As stated before, I think that no matter what DRM is implemented, someone somewhere is going to circumvent it. Thus, I think the goal of DRM should be to make a game sufficiently difficult to pirate to protect the crucial launch sales period instead of attempting to be a permanent barrier. I do not have a perfect solution that fits here but I think some examples can be shown that are along the right lines. The solution of developers releasing their own hacked versions to popular pirating sources is semi-effective and hilarious. In these cases, a would-be pirate downloads the game only to find that the difficulty has been increased to absurd levels or all of the dialogue is replaced with text about how piracy is evil. This creates the situation where only the pirate is affected and the legitimate purchaser is totally unscathed. The problem here is that even the hacked versions will eventually be ‘fixed’ by pirates but hopefully the trap versions of the game would create enough early confusion in the pirate community to protect launch sales. Another option is the tried and true cd-key method. This requires the user to possess a key code bundled with the game in order to install the software. However, these keys rely on an algorithm and have proven to be easily mimicked/circumvented. Again, the idea here is that the algorithm takes a bit of time to crack thus protecting early sales. Finally, a solution whereby strong server-checking DRM is implemented only for a few months and then patched out of the game later protects sales during the most critical period while ensuring that a legitimate purchaser will not suddenly lose access to their game years later when the servers are shut off. This, of course, does not eliminate the potential for server jams while the DRM is active.

In the end, I think most people will agree that piracy is bad for the games industry and that overall lower sales ultimately equate to inferior products and worse choice for the consumer. Strong anti-piracy measures, such as always online requirements, alienate consumers whereas no anti-piracy measures could lead to an industry wide downturn. Ultimately some median between the two ought to be reached for the betterment of all.